Evidence to indicate a disproportionate application of the criminal justice system against communities of color is readily available by looking at the racial composition of both Cook County Jail and the Illinois Department of Corrections. This cause of this disproportionate application of the laws in Illinois, most specifically drug laws, most certainly is caused to some degree by the racial make up of certain communities. (more about IDJISC here)
The question for this commission is how to take this knowledge and move forward to put new progressive policies in place to minimize or remove the racial disparities that are currently the rule rather than the exception in our state. While I believe progressive policy recommendations will be presented today from the many esteemed individuals that will testify before you, I fear that we still lack the access to information from the system to understand the role discretion plays in how drug laws are enforced each day by the various levels of the criminal justice system in Illinois. Discretion may very well be at the heart of creating the high level of disproportionate impact that we see in Illinois or it may very well play an unexpected role of limiting this impact. Simply put, without strong mandates that data must be kept and released by every level of our criminal justice systems, especially on data related to discretionary decision making within the daily work of our agencies, we will always be ignorant to the role discretion plays.
Many people within the system hear this call and decide that it is a way of micro managing the system or second-guessing the actions of front line agents of the various agencies. The reality is that without this information we are always going to be wondering why things are happening without ever being able to produce a social science based study to tell us why. Using Chicago and Cook County as an example, we currently have no way of examining as a whole why detectives within the Chicago Police Department and prosecutors within the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office decide to pursue or drop a case. Both have very wide discretion and to my knowledge their decisions are not recorded in a manner that would allow an analysis to be conducted to look for any disproportionate impact.
While a good deal of data is collected that proves convincingly that disproportionate racial impact does exist, we lack access to data that would allow us to understand the role that race plays at every level within each individual agency. I strongly advise this Commission to take progressive steps forward to work either through cooperative partnerships with criminal justice agencies in Illinois or through legislative mandates to ensure that every level of the criminal justice system in Illinois examines where discretion plays a role within their agency and work to collect data to allow policy makers the information they need to have confidence that any racial impact is being minimized with all due care.